35-36/2016 Speaking your mind
The myth that politicians are boring and their answers always vague and evasive has been put to rest. These days we’re regularly treated, particularly in the digital media, to examples of politicians sharing their opinion in an outspoken and genuinely honest way, without mincing their words. That’s one way of countering an omnipresent disenchantment with politics.
But first things first. In the good old monarchical days you could rely on court etiquette sometimes being given short shrift and on honest words being uttered. Thus Tsar Ivan IV did not hesitate to proclaim his opinion of Queen Elizabeth I, calling her an “old maid” when she reacted rather coolly to his inquiries concerning potential future asylum in England. This, by the way, was not how he got his nickname Ivan the Terrible. Prussia’s King Frederick II had an even more misogynistic comment in store, denigrating the monarchs lined up against him – Russia’s Tsarina Elizabeth, the House of Habsburg’s Empress Maria Theresia, and France’s Marquise de Pompadour – as the “petticoat coalition”.
After political rhetoric experienced something of a slump we would now appear to have returned to a republican era and have rediscovered the open seas of plain speaking. Election campaigns are always a good hunting ground in this context. Thus Mitt Romney‘s bid to become US president in 2012 was severely hampered by his dismissal of low-income families that receive government support as people who “believe they are victims”. Future Canadian prime minister Paul Martin, for example, was called a hypocrite by the opposition. A skirmish in the UK parliament – crucible of so many political witticisms – has also become legendary, with Ed Miliband calling Ian Cameron “not so much the Wolf of Wall Street, more the Dunce of Downing Street.”
Speaking openly has become a global trend. Thus the late Hugo Chávez of Venezuela pointed out after a visit from a US president that “my office still smells of sulphur, even now that the devil has left.” A Japanese parliamentarian’s characterisation of Barack Obama as “carrying the blood of black people, that is slaves” was probably down more to confusion, however. Can it be called defensive if Gabon’s president Ali Bongo Ondimba calls his opponents libellers?
There are many more examples – and the range of our reactions is equally wide. A benign smile? Ignore it? Take it seriously? The bottom line lies in your own ability to tell the difference – not every accusation is justified, nor is every example cited pure rhetoric.
On that note I remain, Yours,